Don Bosco is founder and creative director of the brilliantly named Super Cool Books, publishers of the Sherlock Hong Series and Lion City Adventures for kids; both authored by Don and his talented offspring. This is the story of how he came to create a start-up with his sons that educates children and adults on the art of storytelling.
The story of Super Cool Books begins five years ago in 2011 when the eldest of Don’s two sons began reading. Each week Don made two trips to his local library to stock up on books bringing roughly ten carefully selected tomes home. Despite his literary expertise Don’s kids were critical of his selections and only approved of about 40% of them. This got Don thinking, what did his kids know about books that he didn’t? He decided to use them as a focus group and find out. What he discovered was that, predictably, they preferred stories of mystery and adventure but only those that they naively assumed were set in Singapore and/or Asia. Whenever the location was explicitly stated as being outside of Singapore/Asia they were turned off. When Don broke the news that none of the books they were reading were set locally his boys decided to do something about it and pledged to write their own book. Don, who worked in publishing at the time, knew it wasn’t quite as simple as that and if they ever wanted their book to see the light of day they would need to learn about publishing, printing, logistics and cultural expectations. He set up Super Cool Books to teach them those lessons.
Don approached a publisher pal with the concept, he had a son of similar age and agreed to publish one book, at minimal cost, to see if there was a market for locally set children’s stories. E-books were still a fairly new format in 2011 with a less-than-stellar reputation for quality of content or appearance but they were a cheap way of experimenting so Don went ahead with a draft based on his son’s original idea. He showed it to his kids who approved it and then took it back to his friend who, unfortunately, didn’t but who offered a lots of constructive criticism. When Don returned from his meeting his sons ran to him asking, “Daddy, when is the first book going to come out?”, Don had to explain, “No, the uncle said ‘we want something else’”. It broke his sons’ hearts. They had assumed their ideas would sail through, their disappointment saddened Don but he also felt they learnt an important lesson about the business world. The rejection was not outright and his sons learned to take on board constructive criticism.
Five years later and Don’s kids have learned much. They eventually got their first book published and now have their own ideas for imprints specialising in different types of content. His oldest son, nearly a teenager now, has even gone into business with dad on a Young Adult (YA) series called Bat & Spider. Welcome to to the world of Super Cool Books.
Don describes his company not as an imprint but as a publishing studio that undertakes rapid prototyping of story ideas, some of which are books that may come out as electronic or physical editions, but some take the form of story learning kits, worksheets, 3D printing projects, workshops and events. By rapidly prototyping and testing story products Don can quickly present proof of concept to partners such as publishers and educational institutions who may want to take the content on and turn it into a business.
Don’s background is in what he calls “DIY culture”, he was in bands as a young man and has an almost punk attitude to business relating what he does now back to creating fanzines for his and his friends’ bands in the early nineties. When I describe him as a “punk rock publisher” he says “it’s true, we publish fanzines for kids”. Vice started out in much the same way so there is plenty of potential in this approach and the barriers to entry have only lowered since the arrival of the internet which is why Don sees parallels between modern tech culture and the DIY culture that nurtured him and gave rise to the punk and rave movements.
Another reason Don continues to write his books is to explore the culture of Singapore, which he says is not actually Singaporean but “imported culture” meaning Chinese, Indian, Malay, “and obviously there’s the colonial history. It’s a very rich mix.” His Sherlock Hong series draws from Singapore’s colonial background to present a localised version of Victorian London. Set a hundred years ago amongst Singapore’s secret societies and with a steam punk aesthetic, Sherlock Hong is ripe for adaptation to TV , film or games. Singapore publishing company Marshall Cavendish agreed and, last year, bought up the rights to create a new edition with new titles for Christmas as an opening gambit. Don, however, retains creative control so that he can maintain the integrity of the characters and world he has already established for readers. I mention that Sherlock Holmes adaptations have had a resurgence recently with original series from the BBC and CBS, the Robert Downey Junior films and an Ian McKellen vehicle depicting the detective and his deerstalker in later life. This, Don says, is probably because the copyright on the property recently ran out.
Another author, Anthony Powell, famously wrote that books furnish a room and I’m inclined to agree but we live in an increasingly digital world where even toddlers own iPads so how is Don and Super Cool Books adapting to this? “We’re digital first,” is Don’s instinctive reply “we do everything in digital, we prototype, we connect with people, we get feedback”. Don sees digital not as something novel but as the next natural step in an evolution from the quill, to the printing press, to desktop publishing and now the internet with each step “weakening the instruments of power” that prevented certain voices being heard. However, Don also believes we are only just beginning to understand the potential for the internet, that we need to move past the tools and think more in terms of the network, which can be tapped for ideas, inspiration input and advocacy. I cite Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s global creative community Hit Record as one example, Don references Threadless saying “they changed what people could expect from a t-shirt company” allowing anyone to create and sell the clothes they and their friends wanted to wear.
Like Hit Record and Threadless Don is passionate about making creativity, and specifically storytelling, as inclusive as possible and is using the internet to do so by writing and publishing two free e-books as part of his 100 Writers project, which aims to encourage one hundred writers (or more) to publish their own stories using the same resources and hacks that worked for him. He believes there are an abundance of talented artists around the world who have essentially forgotten how to create without a brief and deadline and he wants to help them get back to what made them make art in the first place, which I for one find incredibly inspiring.
Sherlock Hong and Lion City Adventues are published and distributed by Marshall Cavendish and are available in all good bookstores in Singapore. Elsewhere in the world they can be found on Book Depository and Amazon or you can download the Super Cool Books iPad app and buy direct. For everything else you need to know about Don and Super Cool Books just follow the links below:
- Website: http://www.supercoolbooks.com
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/SuperCoolBooks
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/supercoolbooks/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SuperCoolBooks/
As part of his 100 Writers project Don has authored two free e-books to help writer’s to write and then publish their own work online. Download them here:
- FREE E-BOOK #1: The Official 100 Writers Story Workbook
- FREE E-BOOK #2: Keep Calm & Upload E-Books (A First Timer’s Guide to DIY E-Book Publishing)